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Dr David Christian Marriage Advice

Dealing with the Control Freak in Your Life

  • Dr. David B. Hawkins The Relationship Doctor
  • 2010 25 May
Dealing with the Control Freak in Your Life

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You know them by the way they hem you in, making demands upon you. They have a "right" way of doing things and you better do it the way they say is "right" or else you face their criticism, shame and even disrespect.

Even while they judge you, they condemn judgmentalism. Even as they demand you play by their rules, they don't want to play by any rules but their own. If you resist their demands, they insist you're controlling, though deny they have issues with control.

Such is their high level of denial and seeming inability to look critically at themselves. Such is the narrow and restricted world of the Control Freak—a term used, perhaps pejoratively, about those who want to micro-manage our lives. 

We've been talking for several weeks about CrazyMakers, and from the response I'm getting, many of you have one or more in your family, workplace, and even marriage. You have someone who makes you feel crazy, creating chaos in their path. We walk away from an encounter with an Egotist, Aggressor, BorderlineSufferer and now Control Freak feeling tired, confused and angry. We wonder, "Is it me, or is it them? What just happened here?" as our emotions spin with frustration.

The Control Freak, the last of five Crazymakers we're exploring, anxiously tries to hold onto the black and white world they have created. Often frustrated because people are not living up to their expectations, they hook us by trying to convince us their way is the only way to do things. Their narrow, rigid, dogmatic point of view can be the only way to see things, and if your point of view doesn't match with theirs, you're in trouble. 

A recent email illustrates the problem:

Dear Dr. David. I've been following your series on Crazymakers, but you haven't talked about the one that tries to control everything you do. My boyfriend, who actually seems to fit several groups, fits that category. He is manipulative, angry and very controlling.

My problem is that he tries to tell me how to live my life, all the way from telling me how to dress, how to interact with my parents, what kind of job to get and most definitely, how to treat him. Whenever I resist his directions, he calls me "spoiled" or "childish." When I push back harder, he tells me I'm controlling, which is the word that describes him.

I have tried, time and again, to point out to him what he is doing. He never gets it. I keep looking for new ways to explain to him what he's doing. Nothing seems to work. I'm wondering if you have any tips on how I can get him to back off, recognize all that I do for him, and help him see that he pushes people away by being so demanding. Please help.

I do have several suggestions for you and those struggling to gain independence from the Control Freak. Actually, these strategies are equally effective with the rest of our cast of Crazymaking characters.

First, we must come alive and pay attention to what the Control Freak is doing. They aren't aware of what they're doing, and much of the time we're not aware of what they're doing either. In fact, we're often not aware of how we're stuck in a disastrous pattern of reacting to the Control Freak. The Control Freak expects allegiance, and those of us with a tendency to please get caught in the trap of trying to keep them happy. Notice how these strategies don't work.

Second, break their spell. Controlling people can be very convincing, enticing you to go along with their game plan and then resenting them. Notice their tactics, their anxious dogmatism. Then, instead of debating and defending your position, simply look at them and say "What?" This simple question allows you to step back, for a moment, and ask what exactly they are trying to say. It gives you a moment to ask if you really buy what they're selling.

Third, think for yourself. After breaking their spell, you begin the process of thinking for yourself. You question the bill of goods they are so desperately trying to sell you. Simply say, "I don't agree with you," and notice the difference this step makes.

Fourth, don't debate. Don't ever debate, defend or explain yourself. Don't get hooked in that trap. Don't try to talk them out of their position—it won't work. Don't try to make them accept your position—that will not work either. Allow it to be okay to simply see things differently.

Fifth, do ask for validation. After learning to disagree and discovering that you can survive, ask for validation of your point of view. Ask them to state your point of view before launching ahead with their position. Understand that they may not get it, but it's worth a try.

Sixth, talk about their anxiety. For example, if they are anxious about you traveling for work, ask them if they are anxious about your faithfulness. If they are anxious about money, talk about money in terms of anxiety. Empathize with their anxiety rather than trying to talk them out of their feelings.

Finally, set healthy boundaries. Learning to set healthy boundaries is a great way of flinging back the Control Freaks' hook. Let them know you will listen to their concerns and will even validate them. However, you won't march in lockstep to their demands. You will be practicing stating your preferences and are happy to hear their preferences. Find small ways to make it clear that you are a separate individual.

Whether you feel paralyzed by an Aggressor, exhausted with a Sufferer, or feeling hemmed in by a Control Freak, you have a job to do. You must extract yourself from their grasp. You must decide what impact your particular Crazymaker is having on you, learn how you become hooked, and then fling the hook—again and again—respectfully! Don't allow yourself to be victimized, becoming resentful and angry. We are not to be in bondage to anyone. Remind yourself of the words of Jesus:

"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18)

Please share your story with us. How have you found freedom from a CrazyMaker? What has worked and what hasn't?

Updated May 25, 2010

Dr. David Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, 90 Days to a Fantastic Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.